Thanksgiving came early this year for the Bruins. Ahead of their first trip to the postseason since 2014, the B’s have a very favorable set of circumstances, relatively speaking. They’re the de facto seven seed with 95 points, but under the new playoff format (well, it’s not exactly new anymore–it debuted three years ago), they won’t have to face the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. And thanks to Toronto’s loss to Columbus to conclude the regular season, the Bruins will not have to face the President’s Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals, either. Instead they’ll play the Ottawa Senators, who despite finishing three points ahead of Boston is the only team in this year’s postseason that finished with a negative goal differential in the regular season (-2).
This isn’t to say the Senators aren’t good. Norris trophy candidate Erik Karlsson finished second and fourth respectively in assists and ice time among defensemen. He anchors an Ottawa defense that ranked 11th in goals against per 60 minutes (GA60) in 5 v 5 situations. And their coach, Guy Boucher, is no stranger to leading teams on surprise playoff runs. Recall that in 2011, he took a fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning team to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Finals.
Of course, it also should be mentioned that Ottawa swept the season series against the Bruins four games to none. That includes three victories since interim coach Bruce Cassidy took over for Claude Julien on February 7th. On top of that, there are concerns surrounding the health of two of Boston’s key defensemen, Torrey Krug and Brandon Carlo. But operating under the understanding that the Bruins lucked out by avoiding one of the juggernauts in the Metropolitan division, Boston is still well-positioned to make a surprising playoff run.
First, the Bruins are peaking at the right time. Losses to Ottawa aside (for the record, two of them were by a goal), they’ve been dramatically better since Cassidy took over, posting an 18-8-1 record since that time with a +27 goal differential. This improvement is even clearer when looking at their goals per game average before and after Cassidy took over. With Julien at the helm for the first 55 games, Boston only averaged 2.69 goals per game. Since then, they’ve averaged 3.37. Furthermore, after a four-game skid in mid-March, the Bruins rallied for six consecutive wins before losing their final two contests, albeit without Brad Marchand (suspension).
Speaking of Marchand, and speaking of the Bruins’ new-found life offensively, he and David Pastrnak finished in the top 10 in goals this season. It’s been rare over the past couple of decades to see even one Bruin in the top 10 in scoring. But for the first time in the new millennium, they had two. This is important to note because it reveals a distinct difference between the Bruins and Senators: Boston can score; Ottawa can’t. The Senators ranked a mere 22nd in goals per 60 games (GF60) in 5 v 5 situations. They’re just as tame on the power play, as they ranked only 23rd in power play percentage this season.
On the surface, Boston may not appear to be a whole lot more explosive than Ottawa, mainly because they rank only 17th in GF60 in 5 v 5. But dig a little deeper and the Bruins stack up as one of the more formidable offensive teams in the league. On the power play, for instance, Boston is 7th in GF60 per 60 minutes of power play time. Far more telling, though, is that the Bruins rank 1st in Corsi For per 60 minutes (CF60), which is the sum of team shots on goal, team missed shots, and opponent blocked shots. In essence, it’s one of the more revealing measures of offensive activity. But don’t take my word for it. Just look at where the recent defending champions ranked in this category: ’16 Penguins (4th), ’15 Blackhawks (3rd), and ’14 Kings (3rd). And to add to this argument, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Bruins also finished the regular season 3rd in offensive zone face-off percentage, which is yet another indicator that they are one of the more prolific teams in the league.
Better yet, the Bruins’ defense is good enough to potentially make a deep postseason. As a team, Boston finished 9th in goals against per game. To illustrate how important it is to rank highly in this category, note that fourteen of the top fifteen teams in in goals against average all made the playoffs this year (only exception: Los Angeles). Moreover, many recent Stanley Cup champions (e.g. Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston) have finished in the top two of this category.
Ironically, Boston’s solid defense hasn’t had as much to do with Tuuka Rask as you think. The former Vezina winner finished just 17th in save percentage this year despite ranking 6th in goals against average. In other words, the guys in front of Rask held up their end of the bargain better than he did, as evidenced by the fact that the Bruins allowed the second fewest shots per game. Nonetheless, Rask is still one of the more capable goalies in this year’s postseason based on his track record. And combined with the Bruins’ surging offense and the fact that they managed to avoid both Washington and Pittsburgh in the first round, Boston surprisingly qualifies as a dark horse this postseason.
With that said, the safest bet regarding the Bruins’ playoff hopes is that they will not reach the conference finals. I think they’ll make it out of the first round, despite having been swept by Ottawa in the regular season and with concerns surrounding the health of Krug and Carlo. There is nothing spectacular about the Senators: They rank in the middle of the pack in just about every major category. However, their one true weakness comes on the power play. The Bruins, who rank 7th in power play scoring percentage and 1st in penalty kill percentage, should hold a sizable edge over Ottawa, who ranks 23rd and 22nd respectively in those same categories.
From there, however, the Bruins would undoubtedly be underdogs against either the Canadians or Rangers. Montreal is exceptional defensively with Carey Price in net (they rank 2nd in GA60), which could be troublesome for a Bruins team that has been more reliant on their scoring this season. As for New York, they’re just as potent as Boston, although they do have concerns defensively–they rank just 22nd on the penalty kill–despite having the terrific Henrik Lundqvist in net.
The bar shouldn’t be set too high for the Bruins this postseason. A first round victory over the Senators is the most realistic expectation, while a return to the conference finals for the first time in four years, although a bit of a stretch, would be a huge accomplishment. Fortunately, however, this is possible, given that the Bruins lucked into a manageable postseason draw and have the goal-scoring and defense to get there. What else can you reasonably ask for from a seventh seeded club?